Written By Lisa Breslin

After nine years as a college professor, Dr. Roxanna Harlow decided to leave the classroom. It was then, she said, that she finally felt like a teacher.

Harlow, 39, grew up in a diverse Chicago neighborhood in a home where the conversations included politics, race, inequality, and education.

Her father, a retired car dealer, taught her lessons from books and careful observation of life around her. Her mother, a teacher, revealed to Roxanna and her three siblings, Randy, Renard, and Renee, the joys of learning.

As a family, the Harlows recognized that the world could be better, and that they could, and should, make positive changes.

So to the people who know Roxanna and her family background, her departure from a tenure-track position in McDaniel College’s Sociology Department to follow a dream was no surprise. They knew she was disillusioned by student apathy, and even frightened by the disparity in cultural awareness, life experiences and educational drive between the students from affluent and lower income homes.

“Many college students approach their education relatively unaware of how their lives are unfolding, unaware of all the external factors that influence their successes and failures,” said Harlow. “More and more, students enter college unaware of the world and issues around them. Learning sometimes seems secondary to having fun, and they need help seeing beyond the immediacy of their everyday lives, whether their lives are privileged or not.”

Harlow knew that the educational playing fields for these students could, and should be, more level; and she knew she could do something about it.

So at the end of Spring Semester 2009, she launched a nonprofit organization called Higher Learning, Inc., that offers learning experiences beyond standard classroom curriculums to youths of color and from lower income homes.

“I want to prepare these youths for social mobility,” Harlow said. “I want them to be able to enter top notch colleges eager to learn and willing to give back once their educations are complete.”

Harlow’s organization welcomed 25 students to its classrooms this summer. But Higher Learning classrooms are rarely confined to four walls, and the lessons are rarely linked to traditional reading, writing and arithmetic.

In the program, teachers and students explore museums and foreign embassies. They learn about traditional dance and music from their own cultures as well as cultures far from familiar to them. They are mastering Facebook, learning how to blog and document their experiences in photographs and journals.

The lessons and experiences are obvious, but what the students might not realize is that they are also learning how to navigate everyday life with grace. They are learning how to interact with adults, how to speak clearly and confidently in public and how to read and write critically.

Their educational field is expanding. And as their fields expand, Harlow realizes that she is in the right place, in the right “classrooms” with the right students. She has found strength in the realization that “the real needs” are not always in urban settings, but in her backyard.

“I have met more people during the months that I researched and created Higher Learning than I did during my years in academia,” said Harlow. “I feel more connected. I believe that I’m helping eager students do a lot of fantastic, necessary things even though they were not born into families with great financial means.”

For more information about Higher Learning, Inc.: info@higherlearning-inc.org, or www.higherlearning-inc.org or (410) 900-7957. – L.M.B.

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